Andrew Paul Wood finds a portrait of gay men “more than a little depressing”

Being gay in Aotearoa prior to the Homosexual Law Reform Act passing in 1986 was, as far as I can tell, a curious mix of outré exhilaration and closeted paranoia.

It was, you’ll appreciate, a smidgen before my time, but growing up I do remember the odd mixture of gayness being both invisible and very visible in a mediated, side-eyed sort of way. It was there on television, both open, celebrated as camp even, yet at the same time unacknowledged – the Perspex closet of New Zealand television was awash with Danny LaRue, Hudson and Halls, Are You Being Served’s Mr Humphries played by the camp-as-a-row-of-pink-tents John Inman.

The latter had a uniquely kiwi coda when Peter Wells attempted to call out an immaculately mannered Inman at the 1987 Gofta media awards, resulting in Wells’ promising career being torpedoed by The Powers That Be and put on ice for years. Peter was often exuberantly his own worst enemy.

I was still a couple of years away from Clan of the Cave Bear and Superstars of Wrestling-fuelled pubescent awakening at the time of the Act, but I do remember the incredible atmospheric tension surrounding it.

From the way it was presented, what little I glimpsed, I intuited that it meant something fairly significant to my existence but wasn’t entirely clear what or why, and it clearly upset a lot of people.

The snail retracts further into its shell for safety.

All the Ls, Gs, Bs, and Ts started filing, dazed and blinking, out of the closet

There’s this inaccurate idea that like the Blue Fairy waving her wand or Dorothy clicking her ruby heels together, the passing of the Act magically fixed everything. For one thing the Police only paused long enough to juggle some legal definitions from sodomy to public indecency and were back out patrolling public toilets almost immediately. Violence didn’t suddenly evaporate like spring dew, but the AIDS crisis certainly sprang up like fungus.

There was also the fact that a rather larger wound had been torn open in the body politic. Just as all the Ls, Gs, Bs, and Ts had started filing, dazed and blinking, out of the closet, all the people who had gone public in the most vitriolic way to protest the law reform suddenly found that they couldn’t get back in theirs.

There were no legal protections from bigoted employers or landlords, but it was at least unhip in progressive circles to be agin’ it. The 1990s were still bloody tough, even in the cities. As a small town provincial boy myself, being gay outside of the main centres still felt nigh on unthinkable. And in the early 2000s there was the flatmate who, at his birthday party, thought it terribly amusing to introduce his parents to me and my boyfriend of the time as having signed the petition against the Bill. To be fair, he was a bit of a prick – the flatmate rather than the boyfriend. The boyfriend was a bit of a prick too, but that’s another story.

Anyway, without wanting to sound too much like one of the Four Yorkshiremen of the Apocalypse, the kids have it a lot easier these days. This is where I get to the point, which is Mark Beehre’s A Queer Existence: The lives of young gay men in Aotearoa New Zealand looking at the first-person narratives of 27 people born after the law reform.

It’s a book of candid, if journalistic photographs, accompanied by the sitter’s stories as told by them.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of it. It seems to me there is a huge liability in wandering into the minefield of “gay” and “man” in the first place. The title precludes the proliferation of identities that characterise the very demographic the book is supposed to be about: the post-1986 kids.

Aside from some token non-binary androgeneity, everyone is so ordinary

Given that this is a collection of first-person narratives I don’t even know what their preferred pronouns are, which is a problem when it comes to talking about the book. The “gay men” in the title would seem to indicate that “gay cis male” is the default. Also, and this is a liability today, are any of them trans men? Unless I missed it, no one put up their hand.

There’s a weirdly wistfully romantic homosocial nostalgia to the exercise. It’s a cliché that in the gay community lesbians tend to be invisible, but Beehre historically isn’t interested in that side of the equation at all. His previous book Men Alone—Men Together suggests a narrowness of interest.

This stands out to me as slightly absurd given that the post-millennial LGBTQIA+ community is so big on not balkanising itself like it was in the 1980s and ‘90s. Aside from some token non-binary androgeneity – which Beehre doesn’t quite know what to do with – everyone is so ordinary. Maybe that’s the point…

No, not “ordinary” – boring. Not that the boys are boring as people. I’m sure they’re not, and two of them are actually quite irritating in person. It’s the way they’re framed and photographed in a format that defeats their own attempts to talk about themselves. Given that a lot of these young men are so Wellington, so Aro, my dears, I’m actually surprised the wokest ones agreed to participate in something that excludes so much.

At this point I’m probably expected to offer up some insight into these young lives – how it’s different now and how it’s still the same, but to be honest I’m not sure I understand them.

None of the sitters look particularly relaxed or comfortable

There’s a lack of solidarity from shared experience that defines older generations, as if 1986 changed the world but also snapped a thread and ended a continuity. Given that continuity was one of trauma as much as subversion, that’s probably no bad thing. “You were lucky to have a lake! There were a hundred and fifty of us living in t’ shoebox in t’ middle o’ road!”

I’m pretty sure Beehre doesn’t understand them any more than I do, judging from the palpable, anxious focal distance of each cookie-cutter portrait. None of the sitters look particularly relaxed or comfortable.

Blu Marqueses, Te Aro, Wellington, 2015

Most of the boys are dressed in very similar casualness often in interchangeably bland rooms with the white walls of the unimaginative landlord. The ones that do stand out through their personal style and subcultural leanings have to fight, usually unsuccessfully, Beehre’s homogenising lens like pinned butterflies. Visually the most distinctive characters are the goth-rocker boy, the person in lipstick, and the Keith Haring clone, and even they are struggling against the stultifying slough of not being allowed to stand out.

It puts me in a bind really. On the one hand I want to honour the diversity of these young men, on the other I don’t want to single them out or play their experiences off against each other. Contrary to widespread opinion I’m not that cruel.

While you might be the hardest bastard (or bitch) down the club, to be queer is to be vulnerable, so I’m not going to talk about the individual stories and their peculiarly template quality.

They have their crosses to bear – fraught parental relationships, religion, small town small mindedness – but don’t we all?

I can only speak in generalities. They all have their trials and tribulations and it seems counterproductive to set them up against the cacafuego tsunami of what things were like before them because it doesn’t compare and devalues what the young experience as struggles.

Yes, they have their crosses to bear – fraught parental relationships, religion, small town small mindedness – but didn’t we all? It’s hard not to be envious of the degree of acceptance and lack of persecution they experienced at their most formative and can never really be fully aware of.

How can a fish understand wetness?

Nor should they. We went through hell so they wouldn’t have to, and I refuse to be one of those old farts of the New Zealand homosexual establishment that demands deference for their struggle, or, goddess forbid, pines for a time when they were edgy cultural rebels and sexual outlaws.

That said, there’s this marvellous speech in the 1997 black comedy The Opposite of Sex in a moment of narrative urgency: “I survived my family, my schoolyard, every Republican, every other Democrat, Anita Bryant, the Pope, the fucking Christian Coalition, not to mention a real son of a bitch of a virus, in case you haven’t noticed. In all that time since Paul Lynde and Truman Capote were the only fairies in America, I’ve been busting my ass so that you’d be able to do what you wanted with yours!”

Morrigan Smith, Trentham, Upper Hutt, 2015

In unkind moments I sympathise with that sentiment. Does Beehre want these young men to be grateful to us? Is there supposed to be an erotic frisson that tends to accompany youth? Does he want to show that acceptability breeds dullness, and familiarity, contempt? Does he approve or disapprove of the kids these days – Oh tempora! O mores? Is he trying to see himself in them at that age?

I really can’t tell. Not a clue.

I mean, at least they’re not dramatically-lit black and white nudes or something equally trite, but come on! Where’s the visual and emotional interest? Where is the art? We’re gay, dammit, we’re supposed to have an aesthetic sensibility!

Compare, dear reader, with what has gone before in a similar vein: Anne Shelton, Fiona Clark, Murray Cammick. There is none of that personality and little of that fragility or strength.

It’s not so much that the project is unworthy, it’s that it should have been undertaken by someone from that generation, who understands its nuances and imperatives, who is on the same level and can put the sitters at their ease.

Failing that, total objective distance like an anthropologist.

Beehre is at the very least a similar age to me, likely a bit older, and I know my limitations. He wants to put these young men in a context that they simply don’t fit into because they have no point of comparison, no non-abstract frame of reference to the past.

Everyone is a type. No one is cosplaying their fantasy

Their stories are interesting enough for what they are, though they lose impact by being collected together in the way that they have. There’s no intertextuality, no conversation between the stories, no acknowledgement of their subjectivity, and very little apparent variation in worldview.

The Wellington ones, at least, probably all know each other, so to treat them all as isolated examples makes no sense to me.

Morrigan Smith, Trentham, Upper Hutt, 2015

The photographs rarely make much attempt to embrace idiosyncrasy or character except in the most uninteresting way – there’s a laptop so he probably writes, there’s a book so he probably reads, they are sitting at a sewing machine in a workshop so they apparently have a job.

There is little artistry. Everyone is a type. No one is cosplaying their fantasy. No one is playing with a kitten or crocheting. No one is holding hands with a partner. No one is in drag or a hint of a bondage fetish. No one is especially leaning into ethnicity or alternative gender.

It’s just so fucking bland, as Peter might have said.

True, you don’t want to take it to the degree of exploitation or othering, but the reader needs some point of distinctiveness to identify with, to engage with and relate to.

The result is awkward, not particularly representative, and more than a little depressing.

A Queer Existence: The Lives of Young Gay Men in Aotearoa New Zealand by Mark Beehre (Massey University Press, $45) is available in bookstores nationwide.

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